Sued Opera designer fingers Mozilla's 'Search Tabs' as root of $3.4M claim

Noted browser designer denies charges, says 'I can prove my case'

The former Opera Software designer accused of leaking trade secrets to Mozilla denied the charges yesterday, but confirmed that the lawsuit takes aim at a search revamp he worked on while a consultant for the maker of Firefox.

In a post to his Tumblr account, Trond Werner Hansen said he had been wrongly accused by his former employer and "that I can prove my case."

Opera Software has sued Hansen in a Norwegian court, asking for $3.4 million in damages, claiming he shared confidential information with rival Mozilla, where he worked as a contractor in 2012. "Among other things, we claim that he is in breach of the duty of loyalty and his contractual and statutory confidentiality obligations," Opera's lawyer said Monday in an email.

A Monday report by the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv (DN) said that Opera's lawsuit stemmed from a presentation Hansen did last June at Mozilla, when he showed a prototype for a new browser, code named "Junior," that was meant for Apple's iPad.

Hansen denied that Junior was the issue. "This prototype has nothing to do with the lawsuit now filed by Opera," he wrote on Tumblr. Instead, he pointed to a project dubbed "Search Tabs," which was outlined in the same June 2012 presentation by Alex Limi, who heads product design strategy at Mozilla.

Several times during that presentation, Limi said that he and Hansen had collaborated on design initiatives which would help Mozilla reclaim the momentum it lost to Google's Chrome, which debuted in 2008 and by some measurements, now has surpassed Firefox in usage share. Among the designs the two conceived was Search Tabs.

"This is all Trond's redesign," said Limi of Search Tabs. Later in the presentation, Hansen was credited as the tool's lead designer.

The feature, which Limi touted as groundbreaking, allows users to refine searches using multiple search engines. After entering a search phrase in the address bar -- in Firefox, like other browsers, users can use the address bar both for typing in URLs and search queries -- they can click icons along the left side of the Firefox window to call up results for the same search from different engines, such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, Amazon, eBay and even Twitter.

According to Limi, tests of Search Tabs resulted in users accessing more search engines. "People started changing their [search] habits," said Limi. Two-thirds of the testers said they would rather have Firefox with the feature than without it, a much higher percentage than usual for a new tool.

The feature "flattens the search market," said Limi, giving smaller engines a chance to compete against Google, and users more opportunities to discover relevant results. "The big surprise was Twitter," Limi said, claiming that nearly every tester eventually started using Twitter to search alongside the usual selections.

Because other browsers, notably Chrome and Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), would be unlikely to follow Firefox's lead -- Chrome defaults, for obvious reasons, to Google's engine, while IE does to Microsoft's Bing -- Mozilla could use the feature to separate itself from the increasingly commoditized browser market, Limi argued.

But while Limi last year said that Mozilla could ship Firefox with Search Tabs at a moment's notice -- the core work was completed, he said, and all that remained was additional testing -- the browser has yet to include the feature.

Hansen denied that any of his work for Mozilla was based on ideas that Opera owned. "There [was] never any kind of deal or transfer of ownership of GB concepts to Opera," Hansen said, of "GB," a new browser he wanted to create but that Opera turned down when Hansen asked for 1% of all search revenue as payment.

Hansen also said that in 2010, when his consultant's contact with Opera was not renewed, he told CEO Lars Boilesen of his intent to keep working on his GB concept, most likely with Mozilla, and received at least tacit approval from Boilesen.

"I strongly disagree with their position and I believe I have been wrongly accused, and that I can prove my case," Hansen said of the suit.

Hansen is one of the most notable, if not well-known, browser designers in the world. After starting work at Opera in 1999, he was largely responsible for several of the core features all browsers now share, including in-browser search and the thumbnails of recently-visited sites that appear in a new tab page. (Opera designated the latter as "Speed Dial" in its first implementation, a term that Limi used in his June 2012 presentation.)

An initial hearing in the case is scheduled for late August in Oslo.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about legal in Computerworld's Legal Topic Center.

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